New Law Prevents Housing Discrimination for Returning Citizens in Cook County

People returning from incarceration face any number of barriers to rebuilding their lives in American cities. A growing number of advocates say there’s no reason that a lack of access to stable housing should be one of them.

West Chicago Avenue (Photo by Matt Watts on flickr)

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A coalition of more than 100 advocacy groups in and around Chicago is celebrating a victory after the Cook County Board of Commissioners adopted a law last month meant to help returning citizens and people with arrest records find stable housing.

The rule prevents landlords from denying tenants housing based purely on the existence of a criminal conviction or arrest record. Under the law, which takes effect in November, landlords would be barred from inquiring about an applicant’s criminal history until after their application is initially approved. They would also be prevented from denying tenants based on criminal convictions before giving applicants an “individualized assessment” — a chance to “dispute the accuracy and relevance of the conviction,” in the language of the bill.

“What currently happens is screenings are done from the very outset, and there’s no opportunity to explain the situation,” says Barbara Barreno-Paschall, a senior staff attorney with the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. “It doesn’t matter that they have a positive rental history, because they’re just being looked at as a statistic — as someone who has [a record] and therefore shouldn’t be housed.”

The rule codifies guidelines adopted by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2016. It was introduced in March by Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson and adopted at the end of April by a vote of 15-2. But the coalition fighting for more legal protections for returning citizens, organized under the banner of the Just Housing Initiative, has been pushing for the rule for at least three years. Included in the coalition are faith groups and organizations focused on housing, planning, homelessness, mental health, racism and civil rights. The group has cited reports suggesting that 1 in 3 U.S. adults have some type of criminal record (“half true,” according to Politifact), and that thousands of people are released from prison and jail in Chicago each year.

Barreno-Paschall, whose group represents individuals who have been denied housing based on criminal histories, says HUD’s guidance on non-discrimination hasn’t made it to the neighborhood level where it really matters.

“We have seen it more and more, particularly because, as people are being released from incarceration and are trying to rebuild their lives, they are just facing these barriers over and over again,” she says.

Criminal histories can be a barrier to some of the most fundamental building blocks for stability — to jobs as well as housing. According to the National Employment Law Project, 34 states and more than 150 cities have adopted “ban the box” laws, which prevent employers from asking applicants about criminal histories on their applications and delay background checks. The point is to prevent the fact of a criminal record from being decisive in hiring, and give applicants a chance to talk about the experience with potential employers. Lately, some jurisdictions have begun implementing similar rules for housing. Washington, D.C., passed such a law at the end of 2016. Seattle adopted a similar rule in 2017, Detroit followed suit earlier this year, and Philadelphia City Council members sponsored similar legislation this spring.

The new law in Cook County will not just add legal protections for people with criminal histories, but, Barreno-Paschall hopes, raise residents’ awareness of their rights.

“A lot of this also is about educating individuals who have been impacted by the criminal justice system that they have the ability to speak up,” Barreno-Paschall says.

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson says he introduced the bill after being approached by the Just Housing Initiative coalition shortly after taking office at the beginning of this year. The point, he says, is “to stabilize our communities.”

“The whole purpose of this was to give families a fair shot at housing,” Johnson says. “The vestiges of Jim Crow continue to plague communities that have been shut out and denied housing … There’s a direct connection [between] lack of housing and perpetual criminal behavior.”

Johnson is a former public school teacher and organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union. Some 20,000 Chicago public-school students are homeless, Johnson says. In his district, Johnson tells Next City, some 80 percent of returning citizens are parents. Providing stable housing for those families is tied to every other social and economic goal that many communities have, Johnson says.

Cook County is one of the largest counties in the United States, second in population only to L.A. County. Johnson says that the County Board of Commissioners is in some ways better-positioned to push a progressive agenda than the Chicago City Council.

“We know that there’s a changing of the guard at the City Council level, but historically City Council in Chicago has not been a place where progressive ideas have been allowed to be delivered,” Johnson says.

Coalition advocates say Cook County was a ripe environment for the legislation because Board President Toni Preckwinkle, later a candidate for mayor, was pushing a larger set of criminal justice policies.

“We really saw very natural connections to what she was trying to do with overall criminal-justice reform and the need to bring in housing as a critical component,” says Patricia Fron, executive director of the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance.

Some Chicago landlords have opposed the law, saying it will complicate leasing, according to a report in Crain’s. In an editorial, the Chicago Sun-Times also said the law could create burdens for landlords without improving housing access for people with criminal histories. Barbara Barreno-Paschall says the six-month interim before the law takes effect will give everyone an opportunity to understand how the rules work and what their rights and responsibilities are. Ultimately, she says, the law doesn’t force landlords to rent to anyone. It just gives people with criminal histories — who, she notes, often have strong incentives to maintain steady work and steady housing — a chance to speak for themselves.

“It’s a very important time in our history as a state and city,” Barreno-Paschall says. “And it’s helpful to know at the county level that these protections will be included, to create a larger platform for reform.”

This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.

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Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.

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